Place, displacement, and the self

by Mumtaz Md Kadir

For her first blog contribution, Mumtaz reflects on her research topic—place-based belonging. She shares her thoughts after attending the first closed-door sharing session with filmmaker Chris Yeo and visual artist Tay Wei Leng.

Read on to find out how the sharing session inspired Mumtaz to embark on a journey to pursue her own artistic voice during her time with the Concerned Citizens Programme.

During my visit to Palestine in 2018, I was stirred by the sense of rootedness and connections that the people have to their land (captured in the poem above).

I applied to the Concerned Citizens Programme with a research topic on place-based belonging. I have been riveted by the question of how we come to identify to a place. In turn, how does the place influence us in assembling our own identity(-ies) in order to navigate the social world and, at the same time, seek to become “ourselves”. In exploring this concept of place-based belonging within the construct of nation, I am curious if there is a unified collective experience in place-based belonging – for example through historical narratives, social memories, social relationships, places of daily lives—amongst “citizens” who share the same geographical homeland. If there isn’t a shared experience, does it render the creation of a “communion” unlikely or even impossible?

The word “communion” is adopted from Benedict Anderson in his 1983 book, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. He described nations as imagined communities “because the members of even the smallest nation will never know most of their fellow-members, meet them, or even hear of them, yet in the minds of each lives the image of their communion”. In Singapore, each community—community here can be defined by various social constructs—has a different lived experience, sometimes hidden from or misunderstood by others. For example, the wealthy own houses that serve as investment for their current and future generations, usually in more exclusive areas such as gated communities; while the less well-off are incentivised to down-size their houses thus forgoing the act of passing down this piece of memory to future generations, and often also forgoing their need for personal space. What implications will these varied experiences and divisions have on self and social identities, social behaviour, sense of belonging to the place we live in, and the “communion” we are supposed to be a part of? Have we, as a nation, overlooked experiences beyond the mainstream in building a national narrative, and as a result of this, do some communities have greater claim to the nation than others?

Bringing all these thoughts with me, I entered the first sharing session for the programme with filmmaker Chris Yeo and visual artist Tay Wei Leng. Prior to the session, we had watched Chris’s latest film, A Land Imagined. Using a very creative mix of genres, the film tries to unfold the issues surrounding land reclamation in Singapore and the use of migrant workers in this seemingly endless national project. We had also looked at Wei Leng’s works (through the highly accessible world wide web), which are both very personal in terms of how she captures persons or families within their spaces, and very relationship-oriented as many aspects of her art are informed by interactions between her and the people.

I relate to the aspect of displacement present in both their works, specifically as experienced by migrants. Outwardly, the displaced persons try to adapt to their situations. However, it is unclear if and how this adaptation is internalised. Does adaptation evolve into acceptance, or does it breed resentment, or feelings of despair and the losing of oneself? In Chris’ film, many lines depict the uncertainty of a migrant’s position in society. For example, while one of his characters said, “People like us have to learn to adapt”, another revealed “I’m not used to it, I don’t want to be used to it”, and yet another shared “We sing, we dance, but I not me and you not you”. Similarly, in one of Wei Leng’s works about a migrant woman in Pakistan, the jovial expression that constantly greets the audience is in direct conflict to her morose words suggesting deep-seated loneliness.

I was also heartened to learn that both their creative processes relied heavily on conversations with people. Despite employing similar processes, their final art forms convey different “feels”. Chris’ film aims to move the audience to care about the social issues regarding our own land. Thus, he attempts to portray the stories in a manner relatable to his target audience. The film is interlaced with emotionally-stirring moments, such as dance scenes led by the South Asian migrant community, inspired by Chris’ own “rock-out sessions” with them. The trance-like moments exude the “feel” of momentary solace in a shared experience that equalises everyone involved—the dancers and the audience. On the other hand, Wei Leng’s work is very honest in the portrayal of displacement, such that it reflects the discomfort that is at times caused by her, the artist, intruding on a displaced person’s space. This discomfort and pain is transposed upon the audience, who has to decide how to navigate this experience.

In 1872, George Sand, a French novelist, wrote that the artist has a “duty to find an adequate expression to convey it to as many souls as possible”. This sense of mission is indeed very noble, and one that I identify with too quickly. However, after some of my initial interactions through CCP, I think that it is equally important for artists to allow themselves to enjoy the process of art-making, such as choosing to express in a certain form simply “because that is what I like to do”. After all, self-expression cannot be devoid of The Self. And for The Self to exist, one has to recognise her own desires as legitimate, and grant herself permission to fulfil them too. I think that the more deeply and honestly a person can engage with her inner life, the better she is able to create—in her own chosen language—a work that can speak powerfully to others.

With that in mind, I am proceeding to seek my own language, and through it, I look forward to speak to you.